It is nearly 50 years since I read George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. It was required reading at school. I thought that it was an interesting book at the time and a lot of the ideas in it have stayed with me. This is surprising, as I forget most books when I have finished reading them [so I keep notes!]. The future that Orwell described was quite chilling: a totalitarian state, where the citizens had no freedom to do anything, say anything or even think anything. We were taught that there were countries in the world [this was during the Cold War!], where the society was not unlike this and we should be wary of our world going in this direction. Just lately, I have begun to wonder …
In Orwell’s world, the government controlled the language, which was [IIRC] called “Newspeak”. People were strongly encouraged to use this language – a subset of English. It was a subset that contracted over time. The idea was that the less words available to the common people, the more limited the scope of their thought. This sounds [to me] scarily feasible. To the best of my knowledge, no current government is trying to control/limit language in this fashion – though both France and Germany [for example] have official bodies who oversee the language.
However, I am concerned that such limitations could happen by accident. My favorite example is “unique”. This word has a clear meaning. If an item is unique, it means that there is just one of them in existence. So often I hear people referring to something/someone as “very unique”. There can be no scale of uniqueness; something is unique or it is not. It is a little like saying that someone is “slightly pregnant”. The result of this misuse is that there is a danger that the word “unique” will gradually evolve to mean “really unusual”. Language evolution is not, in itself, a bad thing – far from it. However, in this case it could be damaging, as there is no other word that clearly encapsulates the concept of uniqueness.
Another interesting concept in the book was the “telescreen”. This device was quite similar to what we would recognize as a TV, but differed in two important respects: the device was always switched on; in addition to the screen and loudspeaker, the device had a camera and a microphone – this led to the phrase “Big Brother is watching you”.
Fast forward to the present. In many homes, the TV is switched on most of the time – even if nobody is actually watching it. Many TVs have webcams and microphones to enable Skype etc. It does not take a great intellectual leap to see where this might lead! Recent discussion/news/revelations about large corporations listening in to people’s lives via voice-activated household devices make me wonder if Orwell’s world is almost upon us. Has anyone read “The Circle” or seen the movie?
This week, I encountered another example of the “Big Brother Effect”. My car was due for its annual road-worthiness test – we call it an “MOT Test” and I think that most countries have something similar. This certificate is required to legally tax a car and get insurance. It used to be possible that, if a driver was stopped by the Police or involved in an accident, they would need to take their papers, including the MOT certificate, to a Police station for verification. It seems that this is no longer the case, as Big Brother is looking after us.
I was waiting for my car’s test to be completed and a staff member came along to say that it was bad news and good news. The bad news was that it had failed; the good news was nothing too serious or ridiculously expensive. They could fix it straight away and told me the cost. In the past, I could have driven the car away [even though it was technically unroadworthy] to get it fixed elsewhere and be re-tested, as my MOT certificate was still good for a couple of weeks. It was explained to me that I could no longer do this, because they were required, on failing a vehicle, to log this fact on the national vehicle registration service. This meant that, if I was spotted by a Police officer, they could do an instant check and find that I had no valid MOT certificate. The net result was that I had no choice but to let the test center team do the repair. I felt that Big Brother was watching me, but not watching over me. 🙂